Sunday, July 28, 2013

Rest area offers pit stop and prayers 

The New York Thruway travel plaza in Sloatsburg offers familiar conveniences: fast food, hot coffee, cleanbathrooms.

But the rest area also provides a different kind of comfort to Orthodox Jewish men: every Thursday night during the summer it is transformed into a virtual house of God. For state authorities, it’s a safe alternative to the men stopping on the highway’s shoulders to carry out prayer services.

As many as 1,200 Orthodox Jews use the upper level of the parking garage to offer their prayers in the evening, with up to 250 at any one time.

Located on the northbound Thruway, the travel plaza is midway between Brooklyn, where most of the travelers live, and Sullivan County

“It’s so useful,” said Rabbi Abe Friedman, whose late father, Morton, helped set up the arrangement with the state Thruway Authority and state police about two decades ago. “It’s 10 minutes of prayer and then they leave.”

The prayer area, set aside in a corner of the garage’s upper deck, is used from 5 p.m. Thursdays to 1 a.m. Fridays, from late June until the end of August.

A Thruway Authority official said several rabbis help manage the event each week and provide several signs in Hebrew to direct participants to the prayer service location. The signs are only posted on Thursdays. A Thruway staff member assists as needed as part of his normal work duties.

“In order to ensure the safety of Thruway motorists and patrons of our Sloatsburg Travel Plaza, we have for many years made a once-a-week accommodation during summer months for prayer services for religious Jews in the upper deck parking area,” Thruway spokesman Dan Weiller said.

Friedman, who is based in Brooklyn, and his brother, Joel, promised their father, who died in 2009, they would carry on his work at the rest stop.

They’re on hand to make sure all travelers park on the garage’s upper deck, not on the grass or in fire lanes. If the religious men are traveling with their families, Friedman said the women and children typically wait in the vehicles or go to the travel plaza.

That wasn’t always the case.

In the 1980s, Friedman said, men would leave their cars along the Thruway’s shoulders and gather in small groups to offer their afternoon (Mincha) and night (Maariv) prayers. Children would sometimes move around the side of the road, creating a serious hazard.


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